PCT Days 4 & 5

Day 4 started out well, with a giant breakfast at a table full of thru-hikers in Mount Laguna. Next stop was the Laguna Mountain Sports and Supply, the most densely packed store I’ve ever been in—and that’s including Third World corner stores. It had everything you could ever imagine needing in the outdoors, including all the nerdy specialty gear you end up using as a long-distance backpacker (titanium pocket cleats? kevlar bear bag? Check!) Perfectly positioned at 41 miles into the PCT—when the consequences of bad gear choices have had a few days to sink in—the store has a constant stream of thru-hikers replacing gear, adding gear, and ditching gear (which creates one of the best hiker boxes you’ll ever find: tents, air mattresses, sleeping bag liners, it’s got it all).

After picking up a few things ourselves (waterproof matches, another fuel canister, and a water bladder to replace my old one that sprang a leak on Day 2), we retrieved  our first resupply box.  Since we’re a day ahead of schedule we were already ditching food in hiker boxes. (Hiker boxes, btw, are bins at resupply points where hikers discard unwanted food, gear, clothing, etc, and browse for anything that they’re lacking.) 

Hiking out of Mount Laguna, the trail paralleled the highway for a while—lots of motorcyclists out for weekend rides. We left the forest and started following the edge of the arid mountains, with spectacular desert views stretching off to the east, thousands of feet below. On the trail it’s easy to forget what day of the week it is, but this was Saturday, so we were passing boy scout troops and day hikers carrying their desert-tired dogs.

At the end of the day, Andrew pointed out that we were 2% of the way to Canada—which sounded like a big accomplishment to me.

 

Day 5 brought more real desert hiking. Air shimmering with heat and hikers huddled under bushes in tiny patches of shade. On the trail we stepped over desiccated poops from some unknown animal (coyote?). We haven’t seen much wildlife variety so far—hundreds of little brown lizards, one horny toad, and a baby goat on a leash in Lake Morena. 

We’re starting to see more and more cacti—newly blooming prickly pear and some leggy spiny things. I’ve always found it poetic when writers include lists of the flowers or trees they see—there’s something romantic about calling everything by its name. I know Indian paintbrush and manzanita, but everything else gets labeled as spiky purple flowers, small blue flowers, hot pink vagina flowers, pale orange vagina flowers (Georgia O’Keefe was onto something), and what I classify as general desert scrub brush. I’ll save my poetry for something else.

After a long, long walk down from the hills we camped next to a water tank in a tent village of about 13 hikers. We’re seeing more new people as everyone’s slightly different paces start to intersect. The desert views continue to be spectacular.

  

Day 4: 11.2 miles hiked, Mile 41.5 to 52.7, Pioneer Mail Picnic Area
Day 5: 15.7 miles hiked, Mile 52.7 to 68.4 Rodriguez Spring Road

Photos: PCT Days 0-1

Photos from San Diego the night before we started and from the first day on trail. 

(They’re a bit out of order and poorly labeled because Flickr’s app/mobile interface is a flaming pile of dysfunction.)


(You can also view them directly on Flickr.)

PCT Day 3

My pack was feeling good—only two days’ of food and not too much water. Today was almost all uphill from Boulder Oaks at 3183′ elevation to Mount Laguna at 5936′, but since it was spread out over 15 miles and not at 10,000′ (like in the Sierra Nevada, where the air is oh-so-thin), it was easy walking. 

I’m a big fan of systems, particularly systems optimized for efficiency and effectiveness, and backpacking is a great activity for systems. So drinking water goes in a Platypus reservoir in the outside of my pack with an inline filter in the drinking tube. That enables me to drink water without pausing to grab a water bottle and also to scoop stream water directly into the reservoir and keep walking, rather than having to stop and filter/treat water. Snacks go in a hip belt pocket to make it easy to eat while walking. All items serve a purpose (if not two or three purposes), and there are lots of very satisfying stuff sacks involved.

When I’m hiking I’m usually either cycling through song lyrics in my head (today it was “Tiny Dancer” by Elton John) or thinking about what I’m going to eat next. I do a lot of thinking about food. I pay attention to aches as they come and go. If I start getting cranky I do a mental check: am I thirsty? hungry?

A lot of hiking is really just walking from one meal to the next.

Now that we’re getting to know our fellow hikers better, there’s more stopping to chat, more wondering who’s ahead or behind. Today we’re a silver umbrella parade—the majority of people we see, including us, have reflective umbrellas for keeping the sun off. We have ours attached to our pack straps, so we have hands-free personal, portable shade. I remember the first time we saw someone hiking with an umbrella—three years ago in long, hot Lyell Canyon on the John Muir Trail. It was a silly-looking oddity then, but after hiking with mine last year, I’ll never do a long hike without one again.

We’ve done enough backpacking over the past few years to be fairly good at estimating our pace—usually around 2mph on average, accounting for photo stops and pee breaks. And in the age of the smartphone, you can always know exactly where you are on the trail, down to the hundredth of a mile, marked by a blue dot on a map.

On my iPhone I have:

  • Halfmile’s PCT app, which gives your precise GPS coordinates and elevation, along with your position on trail in relation to various notable waypoints, trail intersections, etc. 
  • Guthook’s PCT Guide, which gives a variation on your position within a list of waypoints, along with a pulsing blue dot at your location on a topographic map, and another blue dot where you are on an elevation chart
  • The PCT Water Report in PDF form, which provides detailed descriptions of all water sources, their reliability, and updates from hikers on their status
  • An app which contains downloaded copies of all the USGS maps that the Pacific Crest Trail crosses, with a yet another blue dot at my location
  • PDFs of all of Halfmile’s PCT maps

We also have paper copies of Halfmile’s maps, ripped-out sections from Yogi’s PCT guide, and a compass each. Not that we’ve used the paper maps once so far on this trip. 

And while the water report is extremely useful in these dry desert sections, if all we were worried about was staying on the trail we wouldn’t need any of the technology or maps. The PCT so far has been extremely well marked, both by signs and also by Brooks Cascadia shoe prints (the unofficial thru-hiker shoe). 

 

So we walked. And walked. Fifteen and a half miles today. 

We walked under Interstate 8, through desert scrub brush, along the first flowing stream we’ve crossed in all 40 miles so far, and finally up into pine forest. There were reportedly showers at the end-of-day campground—which may have been my primary hiking motivation from mile 13 onwards—but when we finally arrived everything was still locked and turned off, not open yet for the season. 

Le sigh. Another wet-wipe bath it was. 

15.5 miles hiked, Mile 26 to 41.5, Burnt Rancheria Campground

PCT Days 1 & 2

As during the first visit to a foreign country, all the details at the start of this trail feel vivid and noteworthy. The dozens of different flowers we’ve seen so far in the desert. Every small change in the landscape as we crest a hill or turn a corner. All the hikers’ brand new gear. How clean everyone looks.

Wednesday morning at 7AM, Girlscout dropped us off at PCT Mile 0. The monument at the southern terminus—a group of wooden posts marking the official start (or end, for northbounders) of the Pacific Crest Trail—is up on a small hill, about 20 or 30 feet from the border fence. I’ve seen countless pictures of the monument and the fence behind taken by other hikers starting their treks, but I had no idea that the view in the other direction—north—was so beautiful. I’ve never backpacked through desert before, so it’s been surprising to me how appealing the landscape is. I had been picturing a dry wasteland, but it’s more varied—and far greener—than I’d expected.

 

So we took pictures, signed the trail register, went to touch the border fence, turned around, and started walking. 

Hoooooly shit, we’re actually doing this.

There was a big crowd that started walking right before we did—the group who stayed with Scout and Frodo the previous night—so within a few miles we were leapfrogging with them. We’d pass someone while they were taking a break, then soon enough they’d do the same to us. 

The Mexican border felt (and was, of course) very close during the first day. We saw Border Patrol trucks parked along dirt roads and helicopters cruising overhead. We passed discarded shirts and empty water bottles—even one entire set of clothes, including cowboy boots, left in a pile behind some bushes. 

 

The hiking itself has been good so far. The weather has been nice and cool, highs only in the 70s. The trail is actually very easy trail, smooth and gentle—we’re just not in trail shape yet, and a gap of 19 miles between reliable water sources means that I started Day 1 with seven liters of water. That’s over fifteen pounds of water weight, more than double what I would normally carry. All that water plus four days’ worth of food (at about two pounds a day) and my pack was 39 pounds. (I aim to keep it under 30.) That translates into more aches and pains… but I’d be feeling those anyway. 

Our hiking plan is analogous to the marathon/half-marathon plan we’ve followed: start off slow—slower than you feel you need to—so that you don’t injure or tire yourself out before the end. I’m definitely most worried about physical injuries potentially forcing me off trail (rather than, say, bear attacks or changing my mind about this whole hiking thing), so the goal is to avoid doing too many miles too quickly. We hiked 15.4 miles on the first day (a few more than planned), and 10.6 miles on the second—which definitely still feels like a lot of miles, but is less than the 20 per day that we’ll need to average in order to make it to Canada before snow in Washington makes the trail impassable. 

But it’s fun! We’ve been hiking in a conga line of 20 or so hikers for these first two days. Our first night we camped in a group of ten, with another eight or ten people nearby, and tonight we’re in a campground at Mile 26 that is almost entirely populated by thru-hikers. It’s definitely a crowd, but a very friendly, happy crowd.

 

Day 1: Mile 0.0 to 15.4 (Hauser not-a-Creek)
Day 2: Mile 15.4 to 26 (Boulder actually-some-water-Creek Oaks Campground)

Preparation: All the Rest of It

While I realize it is in no way about thru-hiking, I’ve had lines from En Vogue’s “Free Your Mind” in my head for the past 24 hours: Free your mind / And the rest will follow. (Seriously. Nothing to do with thru-hiking.)

Deciding to walk the Pacific Crest Trail has been a long process. The interest has been there for years, the desire has increased with every long hike I’ve taken, and I’ve slowly gained a cautious confidence in my preparedness for the attempt.  

The biggest hurdles were mental. Getting over my fears about turning down work for six months. Letting go of anxiety about foot pain or stress injuries ending my hike. More fears about turning down work.

But once I decided that what mattered more was actually attempting this thing—this big, ridiculous, arbitrary endeavor—those fears faded. What’s left in their place is an incredible excitement, a thrill of possibility, a sense of lightness and freedom. 

Which isn’t to say that I’m trotting off for Canada fueled solely by rainbows and unicorns. I’ve put in work: I bought an under-desk treadmill in December and since then have written emails, edited video, and done my taxes while walking at 2mph with a backpack stuffed with 30 pounds of sandbags and free weights. I’ve purchased and walked miles in three pairs of trail runners and three different types of insoles. 

But when the trail is wearing me down—hot desert, steep mountains, rain for days, plain old boredom—it’s that core sense of lightness—of excitement, gratitude and joy at the fact that I’m here, alive in the world and doing this at all—that I anticipate will keep me going. The rest will follow.

Right? Either way, we start walking tomorrow. Today we had dinner at trail angels Scout and Frodo’s house with a crowd of other hopefuls, and tonight we’re staying with Girlscout, who will drive us out to the southern terminus early tomorrow morning. (More on trail names later.) It’s nice to start to really feel a part of the incredible thru-hiker community that we’re joining—not the bickering on the listserv or the trolling on Facebook groups but the actual on-the-trail, walking-to-Canada community. 

Onward!